Home Opinion Featured Articles Need for Non-Religious Chaplains in Military, Prisons, Hospitals, and Schools in Nigeria

Need for Non-Religious Chaplains in Military, Prisons, Hospitals, and Schools in Nigeria

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Chaplaincy is a profession that has existed for centuries. Chaplains provide emotional/spiritual care, support, comfort, and guidance to individuals facing challenges in various situations and areas of life and duty. They include patients, prison inmates, police/military officers, and students in schools, colleges and universities. Unfortunately, chaplaincy has been understood or better, been misunderstood as strictly a religious profession, as an exclusive preserve of persons who profess a religion, or who belong to a religious tradition. Many people think that chaplains must be believers and persons of faith. Well, this is a grave mistake. Indeed, chaplains used to be exclusively religious leaders who provided support and rendered services to religious believers in the military, in prisons, schools, colleges, and universities. But the situation has been changing because the nonreligious constituency has been growing, the non religious are becoming increasingly visible and assertive. Nonreligious chaplains are emerging to serve the needs of nonreligious communities, especially in the Western world, where the profession of chaplaincy started. And if one understood what chaplaincy was about, it should not be strictly religious. There should be chaplaincy beyond religion, chaplaincy beyond belief, and chaplaincy for all, believers and nonbelievers. Religious and nonreligious chaplaincies should be available and accessible to all in a religiously pluralistic society like Nigeria. At the moment, the chaplaincy institution in Nigeria is organized to favour and only serve people of faith. It excludes and discriminates against nonreligious Nigerians.

Why do I think so? And what should be done to resolve this problem? First, let us explore the duties of a chaplain. Associated with the military, chaplains offer prayers. They provide comfort to officers on and off the battlefield. Chaplains attend to the spiritual and psychological needs of officers. But as we know it today, not every military officer is religious or, professes a belief in a deity. Not all members of the Nigerian military pray or believe in the efficacy of prayers. Some military officers are atheists, agnostics, or freethinkers. Many officers are nonreligious, and do not take religion seriously. So the Nigerian military needs nonreligious, secular/humanist, chaplains for nonreligious members of the military. They need humanist chaplains to provide nontheistic officers care, hope and meaning, comfort, and support based on reason, and science, not religion and superstition. The Nigerian military should meet the emotional and spiritual needs of nonreligious officers. Here, spiritual needs means needs related to the search for meaning, solace, and purpose in life, not a reverence for a spirit or some supernatural being. And failure by the military to attend to the needs of nonreligious officers is a disservice to the nation.

In the prisons, chaplains support inmates as they serve their sentences or await trial. Many people in prisons feel hated, hopeless, alienated, and sometimes betrayed. Inmates feel isolated and abandoned by the society. Chaplains work to bring comfort to inmates. They pray and fellowship with them. Chaplains encourage inmates to trust in God for their eventual release or acquittal. Chaplains organize fellowships, and Bible study programs; they provide inmates with faith-based counseling sessions and nonjudgmental support, and help them find meaning and hope. Again, not all prison inmates are persons of faith. Not all inmates believe in God or take religion seriously. Many do not find meaning and comfort in religious injunctions and faith-based programs. They draw meaning and hope from evidence-based instructions and secular counseling sessions. The Nigerian government should appoint nonreligious chaplains to provide support and comfort to nonreligious prison inmates.

Furthermore, chaplains are appointed or volunteer at state hospitals. These chaplains care for the patients, including those who are terminally ill. Many people who go to the hospital are fearful and anxious about their life, health, and recovery. Patients fear for the future of their families and the costs of medicine/treatment. Chaplains provide comfort. They organize prayer sessions at hospitals. However, many patients do not believe in prayers; they do not want to be prayed for while on a sick bed. They do not draw meaning, hope, or comfort from religious worships. These Nigerian patients need their own chaplain, and a chaplaincy based on secular/humanist values.

In addition, our educational institutions employ chaplains to help students nurture their sense of humanity and spirituality. Chaplains serve as mentors and counselors, guides on ethical and moral issues. Chaplains share with students ideas and insights to help them navigate personal challenges and achieve holistic development. As religious leaders, chaplains turn sessions with students into fellowship or prayer sessions. Students who are not religious or those who do not find religious instructions useful or meaningful, are left out. There are no chaplain mechanisms that serve their needs. This culture of chaplaincy has to change. The discrimination and exclusion of non religious Nigerians must stop. In the West, where the institution of chaplaincy first started, there are now nonreligious chaplains. Nigeria needs to introduce humanist or secular chaplains to serve the needs of nonreligious Nigerians in the military, schools, hospitals, and prisons.

Leo Igwe is a humanist from Nigeria.

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